Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Apophis risk not increased: science fair judges, world media screw up big time

First the story appeared on April 4 in Germany's 'leading' tabloid ("I have calculated the end of the world ... and NASA says, I'm right"), later in more serious papers ("Nico and the end of the world") - and today, thanks apparently to an AFP story where the writer hadn't found it necessary to check anything, it has taken off around the world. Alas: it's absolute nonsense! The claim is that a 13-year old German schoolboy "discovered" - while working on an entry for a major German science competition - that the 2036 impact probability of asteroid Apophis is not 1:45,000 as the NASA calculation says but actually 100 times higher. Because during the 2029 approach the asteroid would hit a geostationary satellite and be deflected into a much more dangerous orbit. The newspapers also claimed that this boy not only was awarded several prizes for his paper but that NASA had "conceded" that he got it right and they were wrong. We're all doomed, right?

Well, here's what NASA's NEO guru Don Yeomans told this blog yesterday: "We have not corresponded with this young man and this story is absurd, a hoax or both. During its 2029 Earth close approach, Apophis will approach the Earth to about 38,900 km, well inside the geosynchronous distance at 42,240 km. However, the asteroid will cross the equatorial belt at a distance of 51,000 km - well outside the geosynchronous distance. Since the uncertainty on Apophis' position during the Earth close approach is about 1500 km, Apophis cannot approach an Earth satellite. Apophis will not cross the moon's orbital plane at the Moon's orbital distance so it cannot approach the moon either."

And here's how one of the German scientists mentioned in the first story, celestial dynamics expert Frank Spahn from Potsdam University, explained events to this blog today: "I indeed had contact with this engaged boy - he asked me which perturbations/forces determine Apophis' orbit and especially during the close flybys. You know that I deal with kinetic theory & celestial mech. in the context of planetary rings, preplanetary disks etc. I explained him the 3 and 4 body problem and gravitational interactions in general. He did not tell me about his idea to consider a collision. This was in January or February. The next time when I heard of him was in in the boulevard journaillie "Bild" - together with my name.

I asked him to meet me (last Friday), he told me about the asteroid - satellite collision thing (after I asked him how he calculated and "corrected" the NASA result). Then I showed him at the black board about the extremely small collision probability (frequency) with such an object. Seeing the arising problems I attended the set of [German TV news station] N24 and explained the leading responsible person that I appreciate the engagement of that young student but simultaneously I express that one has to mention the low probability of such a collision plus expressing that this is not a correction to NASA. The filming session went on and I had to leave for another meeting. The I saw yesterday that nonsens in TV - and I am shocked. By the way - I haven't seen that paper and the work sofar, Nico told me that his computer disk had a virus so that only hard copies are available which are with the referees of the contest at the moment. So - I do not know how he could have won the competition, obviously the referees were no experts."

Nor were the writers for the German newspapers or AFP - none of which bothered to ask NASA directly or just consult the impact risk page for Apophis. This is clearly the most used and abused Near Earth Asteroid in many years: Still called 2004 MN4 it briefly reached a record high impact probability for 2029 in late 2004 which quickly evaporated (as always in these cases - so far) when radar data nailed down its orbit in early 2005. And in the following months the remaining impact probability for 2036 also continued to dwindle, to the present 1 in 45,000: You can follow the real science - and the triumph of radar astrometry - on this dedicated NASA website. Which certain Jugend Forscht judges and journalists should have consulted, too ...

17 comments:

Brian Davidson said...

Thanks for publishing this. As a former journalist, I always get leery when I see stories on the veing of "Young Genius Proves the Experts So Very Wrong," because journalists have a strong prelidiction for this kind of thing to happen. Fact-checking just gets in the way of a good story. END OF THE WORLD foretold by 13-year-old" sounds a lot better than "Kid gets it wrong at science fair."

The Die Hard said...

I haven't checked the calculations myself, but I automatically distrust anything that comes out of NASA. There are no scientists or engineers left there, only politically-motivated "gimme my tax cut and high three" decrepit managers and their suck-up yes-boys. Most of us left in disgust after the Columbia debacle and their continuing cover up. After thirty years of pursuing The Dream, it wouldn't break my heart if the whole agency was just disbanded. Anyone who claims that they "could do so much better outside of government" is welcome to go try.

Remember how the various NASA centers were so busy with political infighting that they forgot to convert units on the crashed Mars probe? Don't tell me they don't screw up. You think they'd ADMIT to a mistake like misplacing a decimal point?

dean said...

actually, when you think of it...noone yet has addressed the likelyhood of a mid-altitude atmospheric penetration "near-miss", which very well may be in the 1:100's odds, and it's effects on us.

Bruises said...

I wouldn't be surprised to find someone has taken that into account. It seems likely to me that atmospheric drag would such an asteroid to either change trajectory and head towards earth anyways, or to explode in mid air. This certainly seems to me like the kind of thing that scientists would have taken into account.

kevinwparker said...

Remember how the various NASA centers were so busy with political infighting that they forgot to convert units on the crashed Mars probe?

I remember the problem, but it didn't have anything to do with political infighting. The error was made by Lockheed Martin but not caught at JPL. There were no other NASA centers involved. And it had more to do with trying to operate a spacecraft on the cheap under Goldin's "better-faster-cheaper" regime than anything else.

byff said...

You know, atmospheric drag could conceivably slow (and therefore curve) and asteroid's velocity enough to alter its orbit, but I doubt (without doing any math, mind you) that it would be enough to cause a collision on the same pass, given the enormous velocity and mass involved (F=ma and all that).

Perhaps this would result in a new orbit with even more potential for future calamity, but then we'd be a bit forewarned, with predictive (and, I hope, preventive) faculties intact.

Or am I being overly optimistic?

Mitchster said...

Okay, I don't want to seem like a lunatic. A friend of mine had a set of eight or so books by a man named Sitchin. I read those books, collectively known as The Earth Chronicles and they changed how I view a lot of things ... many parts were profound.
Sometimes people do hit the nail right on the head, the problem has become that with so many people the background noise will probably obscure the truth even if someone ever does find it. Search on Niburu
and read the Earth Chronicles, like I did, before you read/judge all the crap on the web. Interestingly enough the stuff coming from NASA seems to try and make it look like a person would have to be CRAZY to believe in something that seems like it could be the natural explanation for what we collectively perceive as the old hairy thunderer himself; God.

iisan7 said...

@ Mitchster. Well, you failed.

Mitchster said...

@iisan7 ... Yes, and you read the eight books I mentioned ... right ? That was quick? You're not attention span challenged are you? Gotta go, I have some reading to do.

BTW, that was funny. HeHe

jqb said...

I haven't checked the calculations myself, but I automatically distrust anything that comes out of NASA. There are no scientists or engineers left there"

You're an idiot.

John said...

Atmospheric drag?

At 38,900 km?

Which atmosphere?

Earth's atmosphere is below 400 km.

Santiago said...

If we accept the atmosphere to be 70 Km high, it makes the target radius 70/6300 = 1,11% bigger. Area goes with radius squared, so target area is 2,23% bigger. Even if colliding with the atmosphere ensured a next pass impact, the probability would be 1:45.000*1,022, or one in 44.000.

How could we know if it has been taken into account?

Santiago said...

If we accept the atmosphere to be 70 Km high, it makes the target radius 70/6300 = 1,11% bigger. Area goes with radius squared, so target area is 2,23% bigger. Even if colliding with the atmosphere ensured a next pass impact, the probability would be 1:45.000*1,022, or one in 44.000.

How could we know if it has been taken into account?

deadgenome said...

Ok, I don't want to seem like a lunatic, but a magic space pixie came and visited me with a magic space cookie.
When I ate the cookie, it released the information within my brains that the earth was destroyed in 1873 by colliding with a large ball of assorted stuff, mostly made of socks.
This ball was the final proof of God, but we missed it and are now living in a hologram projected by he devil who is actually Camoran Diaz.
If you don't believe me, you must speak with the space pixie and then prove me 100% wrong, or I will make fun of your stupid face and belittle you in front of the whole internets.
Praise Bob.

Mitchster said...

You don't seem like a lunatic, dreadgnome. You seem ignorant ... or stoned.

dreadgnome is an example of the noise I spoke of. Maybe he is one of the eight out of ten of you who thinks that some guy came back from the dead because his daddy was the real God, not the God that this real God was copied from, or the one whose name sounds almost like his, or the one that keeps people like Jim Baker from having to get a job but the real God because ... you said so. Be afraid.
The truth would probably make Star Wars and magic pixies seem bland. Remember what Clarke said about magic. Why do people need their Leave it to Beaver God with his happy ending. Maybe the Gods just got disgusted when we started degenerating from the first models into dreadgnomes and so they just left. Again I say gtf off the web, moron, and go read a book.

Yuriy said...

Ok, Mitchster look: there is no proof of god. There is however proof that science works. There is also significant evidence that any work that talks of god is made by humans, not a supernatural being. So the final verdict is that god is the old science, the first model people came up with to describe the universe. Just like the flat earth theory and everything revolves around the stationary earth theory however that model is obsolete.

Mitchster said...

Sitchin is not the end all (at least we hope not ... 2014 :) I'm no fool. On the other hand, I have studied the various religions (along with many other subjects) a good portion of my life and the scope and breadth of his theories, how they, not only span, but tie history; both arch and anth together... it was enlightening. My most recently read books include Kurzweil, Gibran, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, William Gibson, and that, as Arlo Guthrie once said, "Is not to mention the aerial photography". BTW, I hope you aren't wasting money on Dawkins work ... can we say overrated. One last thing, 'No proof of God'. Hmmm. On the other hand ... you have different fingers. Peace.